Asst. Prof. Chibueze Amanchukwu of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago has received the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, one of the foundation’s most prestigious awards for faculty members beginning their independent careers.
Amanchukwu received the award for his proposal on multifunctional electrolytes, an essential component in next-generation batteries.
“This award spotlights our ideas, and I feel truly honored to receive it,” Amanchukwu said. “It provides significant funding over multiple years that will support our electrolyte research as well as our outreach efforts. It will allow us to bring more underrepresented minorities into STEM, both here in Chicago and in my home country of Nigeria.”
The NSF’s CAREER award supports newly established faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education, and who will lead advances in their field. Amanchukwu will receive roughly $616,000 over five years.
A new era in energy storage
As global demand for renewable energy has increased, so too has the interest in improved battery technology. Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, currently the standard in most applications, are unable to meet growing demand primarily because of their limited energy capacity, weight, and reliance on flammable electrolytes. Researchers like Amanchukwu hope to design an alternative.
While not yet commercially viable, lithium-metal batteries are the most likely candidate. Lithium-metal batteries are lighter, can store twice as much energy, and may become cheaper to manufacture than Li-ion batteries. However, lithium-metal batteries suffer from numerous chemical and mechanical challenges stemming from incompatible electrolytes. Amanchukwu and his team aim to fix that.
With the CAREER award, Amanchukwu will set out to create a multifunctional electrolyte platform—a new system for designing, manufacturing, and testing project-specific electrolytes. The platform will map out individual electrolyte components that can be added to a compound to achieve a desired effect. To better explain his platform, Amanchukwu draws parallels to a popular construction toy.
“The beautiful thing about LEGOs, and the aspect we’re going to replicate in electrolyte design, is the ability to build different structures out of individual pieces,” Amanchukwu said. “You can use the same 100 LEGO pieces to build any number of structures because you know how each piece fits together—we want to do that with electrolytes.”
Amanchukwu explained that modern electrolyte design relies heavily on trial and error. To find new electrolytes, researchers typically mix several solvents in varying concentrations and test the results, hoping to land on a suitable compound eventually. Amanchukwu’s platform will instead establish several functional groups separated by properties like conductivity and oxidative stability.
The project does come with risks. Mapping out electrolyte components is a daunting task with billions of potential combinations to consider. But Amanchukwu is confident that by separating components into functional groups and using advanced characterization techniques, he and his team can demystify the process and dramatically accelerate future battery development.
Recharging STEM education
In addition to his research activities, Amanchukwu will oversee several educational and outreach initiatives as part of his CAREER proposal. Central to these efforts is a focus on attracting underrepresented minorities to STEM, both nationally and internationally.
Amanchukwu will host an annual Battery Day, a one-day event designed to connect with K-12 students through experiential lessons and art. The day will feature a performance dramatizing elements of battery development, demonstrating its underlying scientific concepts in a way that is accessible and engaging. A pilot version of the performance was held in 2019 and received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Following the performance, students will learn how to fabricate coin cells.
Battery Day will also be held internationally, with energy workshops hosted by Nigerian universities in coordination with the Amanchukwu Lab. The workshops will feature standard Battery Day activities as well as seminars on subjects like “applying to graduate school” and “careers in energy.”
Amanchukwu will also design and teach a new undergraduate course to be offered at UChicago, titled Energy Storage and Conversion. The course will instruct students on energy-related devices ranging from batteries and fuel cells to chemical storage. The course will also involve live experiments in which students will design and test their own batteries.
“I often tell my students that we don’t have to wait 10 or 15 years to see the impact of our work—we can see it today,” Amanchukwu said. “If we have new insights, if we have the creative urgency to do this work, we can make a real difference. And that’s crucial because the world needs what we are making, and it cannot wait any longer.”